Algorithmic Anxiety And The Fear Of My FYP
© Illustration by INJECTION - Alicia Lupieri
The often forgotten about part of social media that can have a huge effect: what role do algorithms have on our mental health?
Have you ever felt a little confused by your TikTok feed? At the moment, mine seems to exclusively show videos of Matty Healy from The 1975 (a band I’m not a fan of), interviews with the kids from Stranger Things (a show I’ve never seen) and, much to by boyfriend’s horror, try-ons of wedding dresses (which I don’t plan on buying any time soon). I thought the whole point of the For You Page algorithm was to show you what you like? While, in my case, the unintentional content I’m viewing - or trying to quickly skip - isn’t exactly damaging, the possible side effects for mental health could be.
I recently read an article in The New Yorker discussing a term I’d never heard before: algorithmic anxiety. This is, as the article reads, “the feeling that you must constantly contend with machine estimations of your desires''. Or, put simply, the questioning feeling that you don’t like or want to engage with the content that is being presented to you, and the resulting feelings of anxiety, stress or discomfort. This struck a chord with me. As someone who definitely spends too much time on social media, I have questioned many times whether I should purchase an item that an ad recommends to me. Sometimes, they get it right (ironically, when I’m shown anxiety rings) but, on numerous occasions, I have searched for the item of the moment, only to find these tabs open on my computer three days later and wonder what I was thinking. Algorithms have the power to influence us, and it can be anxiety-inducing when they don’t quite get it right.
First and foremost, we have to understand how social media algorithms even work - apart from subliminally. Well, pretty much exactly how you’d expect: according to The Guardian, recommendations are based on your interactions with other accounts, the type of content you create yourself, and account settings such as your language, country and device. On face value this seems sensible but, when you inspect more closely, this is actually quite arbitrary information. How many times have you followed an account based on one post that resonated with you, without ever looking at the rest of their content? More often than not, only to find out the next time they post that you don’t really care at all. It can be overwhelming to consider, but every move you make on social media platforms feeds information back into the algorithm, whether you intend it to or not. So, while it’s not really the algorithm’s fault per se, it is no surprise that sometimes it gets it wrong. Note to Instagram: watching videos of cute babies on Instagram doesn’t mean I want targeted ads for babygrows (again, to the dismay of my boyfriend).
Though I’m (slightly) joking, repeated exposure to this type of advertising and content does have an effect on me. Should I be thinking about buying baby clothes? Do I even really like babies? It genuinely makes me question my own thoughts, opinions and tastes - and there’s something unsettling dystopian about lacking autonomy over my own preferences.
Many of us, myself included, use social media as an opportunity to explore new topics, learn from other people and be exposed to diverse content. It can, therefore, be uncomfortable and constraining when we find ourselves stuck in microcosms of homogenous content. It’s easy to watch every video that comes up on your FYP (probably more than once) whether you have an interest in it or not. The danger is that this allows the algorithm to launch you into what can feel like an inescapable echo chamber, bringing you back to the same thing over and over again. And this is only made worse when everyone you talk to seems to love this content too! I can’t count the number of times I’ve gone to tell a friend that somehow I’ve ended up on TrueCrimeTok and I find it a bit weird, only for them to tell me they are already there, and that it’s “the best”. It’s near impossible to not feel anxious when those around you - whether IRL or URL - are telling you that you should like something you are unsure you do, and no surprise a feeling of anxiety arises from this dissonance.
Being made to question our own psyche feels repressive to say the least, and clearly has implications for our mental health. But, unfortunately, the algorithm is unlikely to change: it is designed in a way that does make sense. So, instead, it’s up to each of us to be deliberate about our online movements. In the real world, we don’t passively read just any book we see on a book shop shelf, or believe the first political opinion we hear on the news. Why then, do we not have this same intentionality on social media? Next time you see an Instagram story you don’t like - unfollow! Next time I see a video of Matty Healy dancing around a stage- skip! There is no point wasting your time on a social media feed that has the potential to make you anxious and unhappy. We each have to curate a feed that is positive and empowering - whatever that means to you.